On Diwali: Glorious, Magical, Bittersweet


Only the best restaurant I've ever eaten at in Bangalore.

Only the best restaurant I’ve ever eaten at in Bangalore.

It’s Diwali, and with that comes so much light and love and happiness for me as a Hindu. I continually learn about elements of my faith with each passing holiday, so I always have a hard time explaining Diwali to other people, but the most beautiful thing for me about Hinduism is that I feel it deep in my soul. I understand it there first, and then in my head. That doesn’t always sit well with others, but its what makes Hinduism mine. It’s why I am Hindu and not Jain or Sikh or Muslim or Jewish or anything else. I am inherently Hindu, deep through my core, and it bursts out of me in the most glorious ways. I am a human representation of the physical aspect of Diwali.

I am drawn, like that cliche moth to its mother flame, toward the light and love that Diwali represents, both in the material and spiritual worlds. But as I celebrate, I miss my mother. I miss India. I miss my spirit’s home. Hinduism and India, in my heart, are one.

So many things have reminded me of Bangalore this past week, even before I began celebrating the festival of light. My roommate bought a new hand soap that I’d used while I was in Bangalore, and every time I wash my hands I feel like crying a little as the scent reminds me of my time there. I watched a few videos of people celebrating Diwali in New Delhi and Bombay and once again felt like crying as I saw the trees wrapped in the most fluorescent lights known to mankind. I miss seeing those everywhere at night, simultaneously blinding and entrancing me. When I was in Bangalore, those lights comforted me even as I felt like dying from E. coli or homesickness for America, and remembering that they exist makes me want to jump aboard the nearest plane and endure 20 hours of air travel just so I can see them again.

India is magic. I miss the old men, laughing louder than I’d ever heard anyone laugh before, burping after they ate a good meal, looking at me like I was just a silly child when I got confused about directions. I miss rickshaws, those sassy little vehicles that simultaneously inspired terror and joy as they careened throughout the narrow side-streets. I miss women touching my blonde hair and telling me I was so tall. Mangoes. Everyone laughing at me. With me.

But in the same breath that I call India magical, I must also call it devastating. The duality of India is not lost on me: rich and poor living directly next to each other. Beggar children with no shoes standing atop piles of trash. Cattle wandering aimlessly, without owners or protection. Wild dogs, all of them with at least one injured limb, begging for food. Rabid. Begging. India begs, often without pride or ego, with the most desperate voice. It’s not something anyone can easily forget or ignore.

But it’s like a lover you can never leave behind. India. She appears in my dreams, calling out, begging me to return. And oh god, I would oblige if I only could. I don’t think I’d ever wept before, but I weep now for my companion. India is a physical representation of my god, my religion, the spirituality I feel deep within. And I need her now more than ever.

Diwali is glorious, shining, happy. I will celebrate and pray and love, of course, because this holiday is perfect. But this year, it is also tinged with sadness as I experience a longing for the home I never truly grew up in, wishing teleportation would hurry up and invent itself, because I’m homesick.

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Henrietta


henrietta letters

Oh yeah, and I got some pretty sweet cat salt and pepper shakers, too. You’re welcome.

I’d never liked antiquing before — my mother half-dragging me around rooms full of musty nonsense that nobody wanted, my feet tired, my nose stinging a little from all that dust and “history.” History in quotes, of course, because much of it seems to be weird plastic crap from the 1970s that got tossed out of someone’s basement and somehow landed in a shop dubbed as an “antique.” But my family took a trip to a little town on the river and found an amazing shop with proper, beautiful antiques. Vases, gorgeous old pipes, well-preserved powder blue suitcases, lamps, a strangely huge collection of salt and pepper shakers and finally…a stack of old letters spanning from 1913 to 1935 chronicling the life of Henrietta, a woman from California whose husband died of influenza in 1918, whose children grew up and sent her postcards from their trips throughout the state, whose sister and disabled brother sent her darling letters, drawings, and times tables. My favorite envelope simply contains a newspaper clipping of a burned-down building, with the words “our old playgrounds are ruined” in thick pencil-scrawled cursive.

I hadn’t written or been inspired to write since I left India. Life has felt like a blur, and a not-so-pleasant one at that, since I returned. I miss my life in Bangalore, miss the way people treated me and loved me and randomly took photos with me, miss the bizarre hole-ridden sidewalks and too-strong milk in bags, miss the food (oh, the food), miss rickshaw rides through monsoons. I often find myself up at night wishing I were back there, even though I love being home in the states, where it’s actually quiet at night and I don’t have to wear long pants in 90 degrees with 80% humidity. I’m glad I don’t have E. coli anymore, which finally ended its long romp inside my intestines after 4 weeks of the most impressive diarrhea imaginable. But I want to go back. It’s particularly hard because I was supposed to be there for 10 weeks and left after 4 instead, so in my mind I’m supposed to be there, not here doing yard work at 7 a.m. or living in the country with only a few friends around. I got used to never being alone, always having something to look at or taste or laugh about (so many goats), and writing is such a solitary activity that I think I’ve been avoiding it.

But then…Henrietta. Henrietta has a story to tell, and I’ve been researching her family tree and census records, trying to get a timeline so I can imagine her life and recreate it on paper. She came to me on old, yellowed paper, wrapped in a pink ribbon, and it’s my job, my duty even, to do her justice. You’ll see the results. Not tomorrow, maybe not next year, but someday you’ll meet Henrietta.

Many thanks to my reader Hans, whose kind words and constant reassurance always add a little joy to my day! (Basically, he was like “Why don’t you write anymore” and I was like “Good question” and that was like…that.)

Bye Bye Bangalore, Bangalore Goodbye…


I’m leaving early. I’m leaving early, after one session instead of two, and it’s so bittersweet, because there are things I love about this country — the food, the constant respect I receive, the way everything lights up and twinkles at night — and things I truly despise — the sheer number of people and cars, the heat and dust, the fact that I can’t even drink the purified water without feeling sick. I’m leaving in 4 days, because it’s hard to exist far from home when your intestines are screaming and E. coli seems to have taken over your body. I’m leaving because it’s time to leave.

I’m leaving the wonderful friends I’ve made through my program, leaving the office aide Saraswati who has become my surrogate mother during this trip, leaving the temples and villages and mango carts. I’m leaving aloo gobi from my favorite “fast food” restaurant, the market on the corner that sells ice cream. The nights when we stay in and watch Bollywood music videos and laugh until we feel sick. The trips out of the city to feed elephants and see Tibetan monks and buy spices. Leaving rickshaw rides in monsoons, calls to prayer, sari fabric that must’ve come straight from god, and the most handsome boys at the cake shop down the street.

village

But I’m returning, too. Returning home, where I’ll hopefully rid myself of E. coli and get to hug my mother, breathe in her scent, sleep with my cat, take care of my father after his knee replacement, and drink tap water. With ice. Home, where I can actually eat fresh vegetables without worrying. Home, where people move too fast and worry too much and live with so much fear even when there’s no danger around the corner. There are downsides to every place you go.

Sometimes we forget that India isn’t some mystical land of wisdom and perfection. It’s seriously flawed; overpopulated, often undereducated, and still developing. That’s not a criticism. It’s a fact. And if I stayed here simply because I thought India was somehow going to heal me from within, to thoroughly cleanse me spiritually so I would come home a different person…well that would just be a dangerous illusion. To stay because I’m afraid to quit, because I’m “supposed” to stay, because I’m afraid of judgment…I won’t do that. I need to take care of myself, just as I would at home, and right now that means I need to be home. India has a spirit and mind of it’s own, that’s for sure, and right now our spirits are at odds.

I’ll miss this beautiful, terrible place. Truly I will. But I’ll be back, India. Tujh mein rab dikhtah hai. I see my god in you.

Good.


I never know how to explain this place to people when they ask, so I always just awkwardly say “good.” I thought maybe I hated it before, which was mostly due to the fact that I was basically living on a toilet dealing with some serious E. coli. But now, since my stomach is no longer rebelling against me, I understand India.

It’s hot here. People eat hot food and drink hot drinks, which at first defies all logic until you realize that the hotter the food is, the less likely it is to poison you.

It’s dusty and dirty and there’s trash on the road and cow pies everywhere and huge man-holes in the sidewalk…but they just keep me on my toes. Every day I survive is a small accomplishment, especially when I cross the street.

Everyone here stares at me, but it’s less weird now that it’s been happening for about 2 weeks. I’m tall, very pale, and blonde with blue eyes. I think I’ve seen one or two other people here who fit that description, so for once in my life I’m kind of exotic…it’s weird. Weird but kind of awesome. When we were stuck in traffic the other day, an entire family rolled down their windows to wave at me and a friend and ask us how we were doing. Sometimes it’s creepy, like when motorcycle drivers pull up next to us and lock us in solid, abnormal-for-America eye contact, but usually it’s borne from an intense curiosity and genuine interest. I’ll never mind.

I don’t know what it is…someone told me India is not love at first sight, but it grows on you. I think they might be right. Sometimes it feels awful living in this city, where everything smells a bit like decomposing trash, a bit like incense, and a bit like spicy food…where the rickshaws honk, the motorcycles beep, the buses basically sound like elephants…I live in the middle of fields back in the states. Cities are hard.

But then we go to villages and meet little children and fall in love and almost cry when we leave them behind. I see pictures of myself looking so exceedingly happy, so completely blissful, and I remember that the negative is only temporary, and I’ll miss this place when I’m gone. I go to Hindu temples, places I’ve only ever dreamed of experiencing, and am blessed by a little man in the corner, kneeling and bowing before him as he touches my head and sings something I’ll never understand but can feel within my soul, and I can still feel his fingertips on my head and the cold beneath my knees. I bow before Ganesh and ask him to help me, touch Shiva’s feet and let water run across my face and over my head, participate in traditions I didn’t even know existed. I give a priest an offering and am painted vermillion and it looks like a little head wound when I accidentally scratch it but in the most perfect sort of way, and I’m happy.

It’s good here.

I’m Not Dead…


…I just have E. Coli. So that’s been fun. Almost better though! 

I know you were all worried (pff) so I thought I’d post here quickly. We went to a village yesterday and I wanted to stay forever. And I had aloo gobi for the first time yesterday and again today, and…India is much better when you can actually eat the food. 

I’ll write more soon since I haven’t in several days, but we have to leave early to tour temples tomorrow so I should sleeeeeep.

xo

Tummy Trouble


Warning: Diarrhea talk below.

It’s hard to love this place when it’s essentially eating your stomach. I’ve been having a pretty rough time for the last 36 hours, mostly sleeping and laying in my room, running to the bathroom every couple hours. But today is the first day of classes, so we walked 3 kilometers (about 45 minutes) to school this morning and I basically wanted to pass out on the side of the road. Diarrhea tummy and heat don’t really mix too well.

I don’t know how people here deal with the stomach flu or other things that make your stomach unsettled, because the food here isn’t really soothing for my nausea. I’m sure they have soups of some kind, but I had a hard time even venturing out of my apartment yesterday for fear of needing a bathroom and not being able to find one.

Lipton boxed chicken noodle soup has definitely saved me, so I’m not about to keel over from lack of nourishment, and I brought some Gatorade so at least I won’t die here! (It’s not really that bad, I just like being dramatic.)

Anyway, today should be exciting to say the least. Wish me luck!

God Bless You All (Day 3)


Religion in India is a way of life, and the people here practice it with an intensity I’ve never experienced before in America. We went to a Catholic cathedral today and I was almost in tears because everyone there was so focused on their devotion. It was a truly beautiful thing to see. The churches are crowded at every moment of the day, and people sit in silence in front of the many statues, often touching Jesus’ feet or holding their hands toward Mary. These people seemed happy to see us in their place of worship — at first some of us worried we would be obtrusive or invading their sacred space, but when an old man came over and said kindly, “God bless you all” I felt like he truly meant it…it came from his heart. We took our shoes off at one area of the church where people were sitting on the floor praying in front of statues. I want to capture the beauty of these moments better but I realize I’m failing. Honestly, it was one of the most moving experiences of my life, and it had nothing to do with Jesus or Mary or the church’s beauty. It was all because these people feel their religion so deeply, so wholly, that I couldn’t help but feel it too.

IMG_2951

We went to a Sikh Gurdwara later in the day, where we removed our shoes, washed our feet, and covered our heads before entering. The women sit at one side and the men at the other, and we sat on the floor for most of the time. I wasn’t sure exactly what was happening at first, but I realized the man and woman at the front were wearing clothes of matching fabrics and…we’d stumbled into a wedding ceremony. We were welcomed warmly by everyone, and were given some sort of food at the end of the ceremony which I still can’t really identify, but it was a paste of some kind and tasted amazing. I seriously have no idea what was going on that whole time, but I felt a lovely calm in the room. Everything was so bright and beautiful — the gold, the chandeliers, the light, the people. I’ve learned more and connected more by silently observing for the past few days than I ever did back at home blabbering away with other people.

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What I’ve found most of all is that religion is most people’s support system in this country. When you’re born into a religion, you form bonds with the other people at your temple/church/mosque and are supported for life. If you need food, you receive food. If you need help paying for school, you receive help. If you need a place to stay in another city, often the temple/church/mosque will provide it for free or at little cost. And these people spend an amazing time at their places of worship. We’re lucky in America if people make it to church once a week for an hour, but these people come for hours and hours, often multiple times a week. It truly is the backbone of their lives. And the amount of charity work done by most of these places is absolutely essential in this country, because the amount of poor and destitute Indians is so overwhelming that help from these large congregations is probably what keeps a lot of them alive.

The silent beauty radiating from these places is too much for words, but I think it really has changed my life forever. I’ve been practicing Hinduism for the past few years all by myself, because there isn’t a temple nearby at all, and I think I’ve missed out on the bonds and support I could’ve received. Hopefully someday I’ll find my place, but for now I’ll have to be my own temple. I look forward to going to Hindu temples here, because I know it will fill me in a way I’ve not yet experienced.

First impressions


…aka a whole bunch of babbling about this beautiful, crazy city. I sent my family an email and figured instead of writing a new post, I’d just post parts of it here (lightly edited for clarification purposes) because I’m exhausted and it’s only 8 pm. The sun sets here around 6:30, so…it’s hard to stay up super late because we feel like it’s so late already. 

Jet lag hasn’t really been a problem, which I’m surprised about. My sister always takes like a week to adjust, and her husband does too. Even one of the girls in the program who has travelled extensively said she’s surprised none of us are too jet lagged because usually she just sleeps for like a day or two when she arrives in Europe. So I guess we’re lucky! Or maybe we’ll feel it tomorrow? Haha  who knows.
 
It’s gorgeous here — I love the trees, they’re super tropical looking. There’s one kind that looks kiiiiinda like a jacaranda but with less blossoms that’s so gorgeous. They have bright orange/red blossoms and every time I see one I feel so happy. :) 
 
I think mostly the weirdest/most different part is all the trash on the streets and sides of the roads. It’s everywhere, and people sit in trash heaps sometimes and pick through it. There’s also a lot of cow dung on the sidewalks that you have to avoid (it smells so bad!) and cows just chill on the side of the road really peacefully. There are donkeys too. The cars barely even slow down when people cross the street, but when cows cross the streets every single car comes to a complete stop and waits for the cow to cross, because they’re sacred here and slaughtering them is illegal, etc. They’re really beautiful animals — I don’t think I’d ever realized how massive they are. 
You have to look down almost all the time when you walk because there are often huge holes in the sidewalk and if you fell in you’d seriously hurt yourself because they’re several feet deep and usually filled with icky water. We also live across the road from the open sewer-river thingy and it smells pretty bad but…honestly I’ve already gotten pretty used to the fact that everything here just smells a little bit decomposed. Sometimes I walk by shops that smell like incense and stop for a minute to cleanse my nose :)
 
Most of the people here are very dark skinned and pretty short, with rounder features than Europeans. They definitely seem tiny compared to me and a couple of the other people in the group, and when we bought a few clothes yesterday I didn’t fit in many tops because everyone here has narrow shoulders and really small chests, whereas I don’t. But the pants are all long enough, and I found a nice tunic. We have to wear a chulidar  (tunic and pants with a headscarf) to the temples, and our heads have to be covered in those. Whenever you buy pants or a chulidar outfit they give you a matching headscarf, so I have two now. The clothes here are so diverse for the women, it’s hard not to stare at the women because they’re all so beautifully dressed and I always want their outfits! Hahaha. Even the poor women typically look really nice in their clothes — appearance/nice clothes are really important to them here. If they have nice clothes but they’re badly wrinkled, etc they’d almost rather not even go outside. 
 
We went down one street today that had more beggars than usual, but there were only like 4 or 5. Usually they have children, too, and they follow you for a bit because they assume all americans are very rich, but unfortunately we just have to walk by. I want to help, but I can’t really do much for them and hopefully they’ll find luck elsewhere. It’s hard seeing the really poor children, though, because you know they’re likely to be poor all their lives. It’s more common up north to see people begging in commercial areas. Here there are some slums nearby and I’m sure those are more devastating than anything I’ve seen yet, but there’s much less poverty here in Bangalore, whereas up north there are more people, less space, less education etc…
 
There have been a few womens shelters though that we’ve walked by, and a YWCA with free counseling and I think cheap housing for working women, which is really nice. This city is pretty progressive for India, and they have a school for “spastics” as they call them here that I think we’re gonna tour because it’s a pretty big deal here to educate them instead of forcing them to be destitute. We met one man yesterday who is getting his PhD who has a developmental disability and was so lovely, and he goes to that school so we will see him again. He was so happy to see us :) We’re required to do several hours of community service/volunteering here at a non-governmental institution, so I might look into helping at the womens shelter. I’m not sure yet. 
Everyone here is so friendly at the university, and they smile a lot when they talk and are typically very pleasant. They also bobble their heads a lot which is so lovely. It’s a side to side motion that is SO adorable and endearing, and they say it when they agree with you or as “ok” or just when they’re talking and want to make a point. 
 
Almost everyone here speaks English, unless they’re very poor, because there are over 20 languages in the whole of India (here it’s kannada) and not everyone speaks Hindi (it’s more common in the north) but people are from so many places that their only common language is English. I’m pretty sure almost all classes here are taught exclusively in English, because we’re allowed to sit in on psychology classes etc, which I think I will do. 
 
Everyone in the program is so happy to be here and has a real passion for India. We all wanted to come here to be outside of our comfort zone, and we all have different things we loved about India that we came for. Our apartment is nice sized, and we have a nice living room (with a fridge in it haha) and a water purifier so we don’t have to boil all our water. We have a bathroom in our room and the shower is just a shower head like a foot away from the toilet…the entire bathroom is essentially the shower, and then you get the whole room wet when you bathe haha. It’s actually really nice. I’ve taken basically cold showers every time so far because it gets so muggy. I think typically people here fill up a big bucket and then scoop water onto themselves, so I did that today because our drain was a little clogged and I wanted to try it. I actually think I might bathe that way a lot here — it was really easy and nicer than using a ton of water to shower. 
 
We live in a “suburb” of Bangalore, Koramangala, and even though it’s outside of the main city of Bangalore it seems so huge. We walk about 45 minutes to the university, but there are lots of places to eat and shop nearby which is nice. I haven’t taken an auto-rickshaw yet but I will soon. That will be a whole new adventure!
 
I still have to get used to how many people stare at us when we walk around. They just love to look at us…we’re “exotic” which is something I’d never experienced before. I was surprised, though, because people set up stands on the side of the road to sell fruit or shoes, but they never shout out at you to buy their goods. They just sit patiently and wait for you to come to them, which is really nice and less overwhelming. 
 
The cars honk ALL the time, mostly just to let you/other cars know they’re there. People ride lots of motorcycles here and weave in and out of traffic, so sometimes they zoom up on you out of nowhere while you’re walking. But strangely I never feel afraid here. They truly live without fear, and I think I’ve accidentally adopted that. Caution, yes. Fear, no. You just walk out in front of traffic when you need to cross the street, and the cars/busses etc slow down but normally don’t stop. You just have to keep walking at a steady pace — don’t run — and you’re fine. It’s always a minor triumph every time we successfully cross the street, and we’ve gotten really good at it, even on big 4-6 lane streets. 
 
Don’t worry Mom, we’re all ok :) It’s very normal here. 
 
I haven’t gotten sick yet — I’m expecting to, as are we all, but so far it’s been ok. They eat heavy meals in the morning, lighter lunch, light dinner. It’s strange to eat spicy food in the morning, but also really delicious. I had a butter masala dosa (kinda like a rice pancake with mushed potato, onions and spices that you dip in a sauce) this morning. I ate it all with my right hand and was so proud of myself :) I also had fresh mango juice (more like a puree) that was so amazing I thought I might cry. Mangoes are in season for one more week — once the monsoon season starts they all rot and don’t make it to market. I plan to stock up soon because MANGOES ARE MY EVERYTHING. 
 
All my love from India! xo

Moron/Jet Lag


I’d like to quickly address the fact that I was so tired/confused when I landed in Frankfurt that I was acting like Heineken was a German beer. Oops. I know nothing about beer.

On the plus side, I’m safe in Bangalore and am adjusting really well so far! The traffic is crazy and you have to just walk out in front of cars if you need to cross the street…they seem like they won’t stop and it’s a little terrifying but also…thrilling. Every time I successfully cross the street I take it as a major accomplishment that gives my life meaning.

Will write more when I’m not exhausted. xo!

Between


I guess I can cross “drink a Heineken in Germany” off my bucket list. While I’m at it, I could create a bucket list…

So I’m halfway to Bangalore! I’m sitting in the Frankfurt Airport eating pineapple slices and drinking beer. It seemed like a good purchase at the time. To be honest, it still feels pretty good. People were looking at me strangely for a while and I thought maybe I wasn’t supposed to drink beer in this particular part of the airport until I realized, it’s 9 am here… Whatever, it’s midnight my time and I just flew in a tin can for 10 hours, so I deserve a beer. 

I’ve already learned a few things during my short travels, and I thought I’d tell you about them before I pass out in a corner from confusion and early-onset jet lag (that’s a thing, right?):

1. I’m apparently a nervous pee-er. I don’t think I’ve ever used the restroom this many times in two days, much less 12 hours.

2. TSA agents in Seattle tend to be friendly. TSA agents in Frankfurt…not so much. An extremely sassy (and when I say sassy, I mean grumpy) German man told me to leave my sweatshirt and shoes on as I went through security, which then caused the scanner to beep and then I got aggressively patted down. I’m always patted down at airports. I should just expect a subtle grope, at this point, when I travel. In the states, they usually tell you they’re going to use the back of their hands and then they’re really gentle about it, but here the lady (who was really nice, thank god) basically gave my boobs a squeeze and it was a little bizarre. It wasn’t creepy or bad, it was just bizarre. Anyway, screw that noodle-brained man for making me leave my shoes on and causing me to get fondled. 

3. Apparently I give off a German vibe. I’m flying on a German airline, so all the flight attendants speak both English and German. Even though their default language for addressing most people was English, they always started nattering on to me in German and I could barely get a word in to tell them I couldn’t understand anything they were saying. Even an Indian lady started talking to me in German. I should’ve made a sign (I’m Very American) and worn it the whole flight.

4. Hot towels are a gift from the gods. I love them, and they love me, and my face loved them, and they loved my face.

5. Children like me. A lot. The little Indian girl sitting in front of me kept playing peek-a-boo between the seats with me. It lasted a really long time, and I didn’t really know what to do because we didn’t speak the same language, so I just kept puffing my cheeks out and waving. I probably looked like an idiot. She didn’t care.
I was also slobbered on by a small German child who looked like he was my offspring and it was both weird and awesome at once. 

6. You can tell what people are saying usually, even if you don’t speak their language. Sass and hand gestures are universal.

7. Seriously, guys. Everyone thinks I’m German. At this rate, I’ll be making wiener schnitzel for the entire airport before I board my flight. 

Auf Wiedersehen!